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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

TMT #157: The Power of Generosity — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

The following is related concerning Benjamin the Righteous, who was appointed supervisor of the charity fund. Once a woman came to him during a time of scarcity and said to him, “My master, sustain me!” He said, “I swear by the Holy Temple Service that the charity fund is empty.” She said, “My master, if you do not sustain me, a woman and her seven children will die.” He rose and sustained her from his own funds. Sometime afterward, he became deathly ill. The angels addressed the Holy Blessed One, saying, “Master of the Universe, You have said that one who preserves a single life among Israel is considered to have preserved the entire world. Should Benjamin the Righteous, who preserved a woman and her seven children, die at so early an age?” They immediately tore up [Benjamin’s] decree. [A sage] taught: They added twenty-two years to his life. (BT Bava Batra 11a)

The terms tzedek, tzedakah, and tzaddik/tzaddeket all derive from the same three-letter root, צ-ד-ק, whose fundamental meaning is “right.” Its usage is always related to this notion in the sense of justice.  Torah commands us to pursue justice (Deuteronomy 16:20). In the Hebrew Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, and midrash, all three terms inhabit a range of meanings. Tzedek connotes the abstract noun “justice;” tzedakah connotes acts of  justice in a variety of venues; a tzaddik or tzaddeket is a person who is a purveyor of justice. The term tzedakah is most often used to connote acts of generosity that correct injustice by providing people deprived of the necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing—with what they need. Hence, tzedakah is designated for the poor.  

The biblical social-agricultural institutions of the ma’aser oni (poor tithe), shemittah (sabbatical year), leket (gleanings), and pe’ah (corners) addressed and attempted to rectify the needs of the poor. They are mitzvot (“commandments”) and hence obligatory. 

Post-biblically, the Rabbis established communal charities—a kupah, in Hebrew—and assigned a trustworthy administrator to attend to the needs of the poor. In the account above, the supervisor of the communal fund is known as Benjamin ha-Tzaddik, Benjamin the Righteous. Such funds continued through the Middle Ages, blossoming into a sophisticated array of funds for a wide variety of needs, lasting well into the modern period. With them grew a cadre of trusted people to solicit and distribute contributions.

Tzedakah is a mitzvah, though the quantity one donates is not specified by halakhah. Hence, tzedakah lies on the boundary between a specific commanded act, and an act of generosity. We respond to both our sense of obligation and our inspiration to be generous.

Justice, justice shall you pursue, 
that you may thrive and occupy the land that 
Adonai your God is giving you. —Deuteronomy 16:20

The Talmud recounts a story in two scenes about Benjamin the Righteous, who appears only in this story. He is not a sage, but the rabbis must have held him in high regard because they entrusted communal funds to him to distribute to the poor, and he is known as Benjamin “the Righteous.”

In Scene One, a widow, the mother of seven children, approaches Benjamin to request funds to feed her family during a time of scarcity. This information lends greater urgency and credibility to her request, so we are unsurprised when Benjamin responds that the community tzedakah fund is empty, going so far as to swear by the Holy Temple he is telling her the truth. In times of scarcity, Benjamin must receive many requests for help. With seven hungry children to feed, the woman is desperate and persists in her request. Benjamin is moved by her plea and supplies her with money from his own wallet to sustain her family, demonstrating why he is called Benjamin “the Righteous.”

Scene Two takes place in heaven many years later as Benjamin’s decreed life-span draws to a close. The angels, having observed Benjamin’s generosity, approach God to plead on his behalf. They argue that God taught that one who saves a single life is credited with having saved an entire world. This teaching, from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, is spun out of a creative interpretation of God’s words to Cain, “What have you done? Hark, your brother [Abel’s] bloods cry out to Me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10) The plural here signifies both Abel’s blood (i.e., life), as well as the lives (i.e., blood) of his descendants: all those who will never be born because Cain killed Abel. By sustaining the widow and her children, the angels claim, Benjamin saved their lives, and thereby the lives of their progeny. The heavenly decree concerning the end of his life is immediately torn up and, according to an anonymous sage, he is allotted an additional twenty-two years of life, a reward for his generosity.

  1. If you were interviewing someone to be the administrator of a communal tzedakah fund, what attributes would you look for? What questions would you ask?
  2. The story illustrates a popular rabbinic understanding of Proverbs 10:2 and 11:4, וּצְדָקָה, תַּצִּיל מִמָּוֶת “tzedakah saves from death,” that giving tzedakah rewards the giver by protecting them from death. In what ways is this interpretation true (or not true) for you?
  3. Does Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog’s description of the role of tzedakah in Eastern European Jewish life (from Life is With People, see box) sound familiar? Should this be our communal goal today? How should it be administered?
“Life in the shtetl [the small villages of Eastern Europe] begins and ends with tzedaka. When a child is born, the father pledges a certain amount of money for distribution to the poor. At a funeral the mourners distribute coins to the beggars who swarm the cemetery, chanting, “Tzedaka saves from death.” At every turn during one's life, the reminder to give is present... If something good or bad happens, one puts a coin into a box. Before lighting the Sabbath candles, the housewife drops a coin into one of the boxes… Children are trained to the habit of giving. A father will have his son give alms to the beggar instead of handing them over directly…” (Life Is With People)

Thursday, March 19, 2020

TMT #155: Loosen Up — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Our Rabbis taught: One should always be flexible like a reed and not stiff like a cedar. Once, R. Elazar b. Shimon was returning from his master’s home in Migdal G’dor. He was riding a donkey along the bank of a river in a leisurely fashion. He was very happy and his head was swollen with pride because he had learned much Torah. He happened upon an exceedingly ugly man, who said to him, “Peace be upon you, Rabbi.” [R. Elazar] did not return his greeting. [R. Elazar] said to him, “Worthless one! How ugly he is! Are all the people of your town as ugly as you?” [The man] said to him, “I do not know, but go tell the craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is the vessel you made!’” 
When [R. Elazar] realized he had sinned, he dismounted from his donkey and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, “I humble myself before you. Forgive me.” [The man] said to [R. Elazar], “I will not forgive you until you approach the craftsman who made me and say, ‘How ugly is this vessel that you made.’”
[R. Elazar] walked behind [the man] until they reached the city. The people of the city came out to greet him, saying, “Peace be upon you, our rabbi, our teacher.” [The man] said to them, “Whom are you calling ‘my rabbi, my teacher’?” They said to him, “This man, who walks behind you.” He said to them, “If this is a rabbi, may there not be many like him in Israel.” They said, “Why [do you say this]?” He said to them, “He did thus-and-such to me.” They said to him, “Nevertheless, forgive him because he is a great Torah scholar.” He said to them, “I forgive him for your sakes, provided he does not make a habit of behaving this way.” R. Elazar b. R. Shimon immediately entered [the study hall] and taught: One should always be flexible like a reed and not stiff like a cedar. Therefore, the reed merited that a quill pen would be made from it to write a Torah scroll, tefillin, and mezuzot. (BT Ta'anit 20a,b)

What is true beauty? It is perceived by the eyes? Through the mind? With the soul? The story of a rabbi puffed up with Torah learning and full of himself, who sees another human being as merely “empty”—worthless and therefore ugly—poses this question for us, and far more.

Imagine R. Elazar returning home after a semester packed with Torah learning, jubilant over his progress. He travels at a leisurely pace, his head swollen with pride, his countenance radiating self-satisfaction. Along the road, he encounters a man who greets him cheerfully and deferentially. To R. Elazar, the man is not aglow with Torah learning and his therefore “empty”— worthless in the way that matters most: Torah learning. Addressing the man in the third person, R. Elazar tells him he is ugly and, in a feat of sheer audacity, asks if all the people where he comes from are equally ugly. The man’s response is very telling. He simultaneously reveals the degree of pain R. Elazar’s words have inflicted, as well as the depth of Torah in his soul. The man reminds R. Elazar that he, like all people, was created by God. Therefore, R. Elazar’s caustic comment is an insult to God, the Creator, whose handiwork the rabbi deems essentially deficient. What is more, the man terms himself a “vessel,” implying that the aesthetics of our bodies is far less important and valuable than the “content,” inviting us to compare R. Elazar’s “vessel” with its “content.” The man thereby communicates to R. Elazar that physical beauty is not God’s highest priority nor the measure of the worth of a human being. R. Elazar’s swollen ego instantly deflates; he gets down off the donkey and begs the man’s forgiveness. The man, apparently still hurt and insulted, is  not ready to forgive, so R. Elazar—no longer riding high on his donkey—follows behind the man into town. The two have traded places: R. Elazar is no longer in an elevated and superior position; he now trails humbly behind the man.

As the two men enter the town, the residents recognize the rabbi and enthusiastically greet him as an honored visitor. The man is shocked to hear R. Elazar accorded such respect—R. Elazar certainly did not behave like a learned and honored rabbi when they met on the road. The man acerbically comments that if R. Elazar is a rabbinic paradigm, “may there not be many like him in Israel.” The surprised villagers ask what transpired to provoke this. When they hear the man’s account, they ask him to forgive the rabbi for the sake of his Torah learning. The man agrees to forgive R. Elazar for the sake of the villagers—no on account of his learning—but on the condition that R. Elazar changes his behavior. The day’s experience has taught R. Elazar new Torah, which he immediately teaches in the local study house: the importance of not being stiff like a cedar—stuck in place and unable to move beyond stereotypes—but rather flexible like a reed and thereby able to adopt a new perspective when the situation requires it.

  1. R. Elazar, his ego inflated by his learning, literally “looks down” from his perch on his donkey onto the man he passes. He does not offer a ride, but rather disdain and an insult. Can this story can be interpreted as a commentary on the idea of meritocracy? How is the value of R. Elazar’s Torah learning compromised by his uncivil behavior?
  2. The story raises an interesting question: Why should the man should forgive R. Elazar? He rejects the townspeople’s request that he forgive R. Elazar on account of his Torah learning, but agrees to forgive the sage only for the sake of the townspeople. Why do you think the man is unwilling to forgive R. Elazar on account of his Torah learning? Can one truly claim Torah learning if their behavior does not reflect Torah values?
  3. We may have thought R. Elazar’s insensitive insult is the central problem, but Talmud informs  us that the story teaches a lesson about flexibility. In what way(s) do R. Elazar and the man he encounters on the road exhibit inflexibility? When the error of his way is pointed out, does R. Elazar resist change? Does the man? In what way(s) do both characters learn to be more flexible?

Friday, March 13, 2020

Ten Minutes of Talmud #154: Liar! Liar! — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

R. Ile’a said in the name of R. Elazar b. R. Shimon: It is permitted for a person to deviate from the truth in the interest of peace, as it says, [Before his death,] your father [Jacob] left this instruction: “So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, [the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly].’” (Genesis 50:16-17) 
 R. Natan said: It is a mitzvah [to deviate from the truth for the sake of peace], as it says, Samuel said, “How can I go, and Saul will hear and kill me?” (1 Samuel 16:2) 
It was taught in the School of R. Yishmael: Great is peace, for even the Holy Blessed One departed [from the truth] for it. For initially it is written [that Sarah said of Abraham], “And my lord is old” (Genesis 18:12) and in the end it is written [that God told Abraham that Sarah said,] “And I am old” (Genesis 18:3). (BT Yevamot 65b)
Most people claim to admire honest people and revile liars—except when they feel the need to conceal or shade the truth. The Talmud (BT Pesachim 113b) opines that God despises hypocrites whose utterances are completely different from what they feel in their hearts. Yet how many of us have uttered words that conflicted with what we thought because we believed this was the right and kind thing to do? And how often are children exhorted to always tell the truth, but then severely criticized for candidly expressing a negative opinion about someone in response to an inquiry?

The Rabbis record a famous disagreement in BT Ketubot 17 between Bet Hillel (B”H) and Bet Shammai (B”S) concerning the question: How does one praise a bride? B”S says: we praise the bride as she is (that is, saying only what is absolutely true). B”H says: We say that she is beautiful and graceful. B”S asks in response: Would you say she is beautiful and graceful even if she were obviously lacking both attributes? After all, Torah says, Distance yourself from a false matter (Exodus 23:7). B”H reminds B”S that beauty, like value, is subjective, while empathy toward others is an overriding principle. This, B”H maintains, is just the sort of occasion when kindness is more important than precision.

R. Ile’a learned from his master, R. Elazar b. R. Shimon, that there are occasions when insuring commity between people takes priority even over the truth. R. Ile’a supplies us with a fine example, straight from the tangled story of Jacob’s sons’ thorny relationships. In the last chapter of Genesis, we read that when Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers become frightened and anxious, lest Joseph seek revenge against them for having sold him to Midianites-Ishmaelites. In an attempt to avert vengeance, they send Joseph a message saying that their father, Jacob, before he died, expressed his desire for Joseph to forgive his brothers. Jacob never said this. R. Elazar b. R. Shimon taught that because the lie was told to effect peace and reconciliation, it was an acceptable deviation from the truth. Talmud then offers two additional examples drawn from Hebrew Scripture.

The Book of 1 Samuel recounts that after God decides to withdraw the crown from Saul, God sends the prophet to anoint a son of Jesse the king of Israel in place of Saul. Samuel is afraid that Saul’s soldiers will learn of his mission and kill him. God instructs Samuel to engage in a ruse: he should take a heifer with him so that if Saul’s men stop him, he can say that he has come to offer a sacrifice to God. God not only countenances the lie—God fashions it.

In a third example, the School of R. Ishmael teaches that not only may a person deviate from the truth for the sake of peace, but even God tells a lie to keep peace between Sarah and Abraham. Sarah, overhearing the visitors who tell Abraham that he and Sarah will become the biological parents of a child, questions whether she will again know enjoyment “with my husband so old” (Genesis 18:12). When God recounts the incident to Abraham, however, God tells him that Sarah spoke about herself, saying, “Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?” (Genesis 18:13)

  1. Is deviating from the truth equivalent to telling an outright blistering lie? How are they similar? Where do they differ? Erich Fromm wrote that there exist gradations of truth that relate to functional approximations of reality. Does this help us make sense of the Talmud’s teaching, or muddy the moral waters?
  2. The British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead warned against the presumption that one has a lock on truth. He said, “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.” How do our ever-changing knowledge and the challenge of interpreting what others say contribute to problem? 
“The truth is an awful weapon of aggression. 
It is possible to lie, and even to murder, with the truth!” 
— Alfred Adler
  1. The Rabbis have supplied us with three examples of deviating from the truth for the sake of  peace: to foster peace and reconciliation and avoid vengeance; to prevent murder; to keep peace in a marriage. Of the Talmud’s three examples: the first two are told by people; God tells the third. Lives may be saved by the first two lies, but not by the third. Why do you think these examples are ordered as they are? Consider the nature and order of the three examples of acceptable deviations from the truth, as well as physician and psychotherapist Alfred Adler’s observation in light of each one.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

#153: Is Laughter a Laughing Matter? — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Serve Adonai in awe and rejoice with trembling (Psalm 2:11). What does “rejoice with trembling” mean? Rav Adda bar Mattanah said Rabba said: [even] where there is rejoicing, there should be trembling. Abaye was sitting before Rabba, [who] saw that he was extremely joyful. [Rabba] said, “It is written, Rejoice with trembling.” [Abaye] said to him, “I am laying tefillin.” R. Yirm’ya was sitting before R. Zeira, [who] saw that R. Yirm’ya was excessively joyful. [R. Zeira] said to him, “It is written, In all sorrow there is profit (Proverbs 14:23).” [R. Yirm’ya] said to him, “I am laying tefillin.” Mar b. Ravina made a wedding for  his son. He saw that the Rabbis were extremely joyous. He brought a cup worth 400 [zuz] and broke it in front of them and they became sad. Rav Ashi made a wedding for his son. He saw that the Rabbis were extremely joyous. He brought a cup of white glass and broke it in front of them and they became sad. *** The Rabbis said to Rav Hamnuna Zuti at the wedding of Mar b. Ravina: “Let the Master sing for us.” He said to them, “Woe to us for we shall die! Woe to us for we shall die!” They said to him, “What shall we respond after you?” He said to them, “Where is Torah and mitzvah that protect us?” R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Shimon b. Yochai, “One is forbidden to fill one’s mouth with mirth in this world, as it is said, [When Adonai returns the fortunes of Zion, we will be as dreamers;] then will our mouths be filled with laughter and our lips with tongues with joy (Psalm 126:1). When [will that be]? They will say among the nations, “Adonai has done great things for them!” (Psalm 126:2). They said about Reish Lakish that throughout his life he did not fill his mouth with laughter in this world once he had heard this [teaching] from his teacher, R. Yochanan. (BT Berakhot 30b-31a)

The Rabbis were not, as a rule, opposed to humor and laughter. Bar Kapparah, for example, was famous for his humor and the pranks he played. Rabbah was said to open his lessons with a joke (BT Shabbat 30b). Elijah the Prophet tells us that of all the people in the public square, jesters are destined for the world to come because they make people happy (BT Ta’anit 22a). Mishnah Berakhot 5:1, however, instructs that one be in a serious frame of mind (koved-rosh) to recite the Amidah to insure that one’s heart is focused exclusively on God and notes that the pious sages of an earlier age would delay their prayers an hour to achieve koved-rosh. The Gemara asks the source for this stricture. Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak offers Psalm 2:11: Serve Adonai in awe and rejoice with trembling. The unusual phrase “rejoice with trembling” launches a discussion on the proper limits of humor and rejoicing.

Rav Adda bar Mattanah interprets “rejoice with trembling” to forbid unbridled expressions of joy. Joy should always be tempered by an abiding sense of God’s power and, as will become apparent, whatever suffering God has ordained for, or permitted to happen to, Israel (more on this soon). Two anecdotes follow in which a rabbi instructs his student to curtail his excessive expression of joy. Both students, Abaye and R. Yirm’ya, respond that their masters need not worry; their tefillin (phylacteries) will curtail excessive exuberance. Two wedding anecdotes follow. In each story, a group of rabbis celebrates in a boisterous manner that the father of the groom considers excessive. Both fathers, Mar b. Ravina and Rav Ashi, halt their colleagues’ displays of joy by shattering an expensive goblet, a stark symbol of how quickly happiness can turn to sorrow. We are then told a story that explains what lies behind the tradition of stifling expressions of unbridled joy: At the wedding of Mar b. Ravina, his colleagues ask Rav Hamnuna Zuti to entertain them with a song. They expect a boisterous expression of the joy of the occasion; instead he sings about human mortality and the inescapable reality of death. They don’t immediately recognize the song as a dirge and ask what they should sing as the chorus. He replies, “Where is Torah and mitzvah that protect us?” It now becomes clear that the song is not merely about human mortality: it is about the national tragedies that have befallen the nation—the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and the calamitous Bar Kochba Rebellion of 135 C.E.—and continue to adversely impact life day in and day out. This is made explicit through the interpretation of Psalm 126:1-2 that R. Yochanan learned from R. Shimon b. Yochai. Unbridled laughter and expressions of joy are not permitted in this world—while the Temple lies in ruins and Israel is in exile. Only upon God’s return of the captives to the land of Zion, only then will laughter and joy be unlimited. (The psalm speaks of the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., but the Rabbis routinely apply such verses to the Second Temple destruction, as well.) Gemara asks: When, precisely, will that happen? As R. Yochanan interprets v. 2, when Israel’s enemies recognize God’s redemption of Israel, which will be marked by the return of the people to the Land of Israel and the restoration of their sovereignty over it.

R. Yochanan’s teaching far exceeds the boundaries of the discussion of the proper mood for praying the Amidah. It is difficult to know if R. Yochanan’s teaching is an optimistic affirmation that redemption will come, or a pessimistic appraisal of the quality of life until that happens.

  1. Do you think R. Shimon b. Yochai taught that unalloyed joy and laughter are not possible until redemption, or should be delayed until then? Why? Do you think this passage is passing a negative judgment against all humor, joking, and boisterous celebration, or reserving for prayer a serious demeanor?
  2. Do you think the discussion of unbridled joy is intended to comment on human behavior or the historical condition of the Jewish people? Is there a way to see the Rabbis as survivors of tragedy who find humor and joy less accessible in light of their experience?
  3. Do laughter and humor hold particular value in times of hardship?

Friday, January 31, 2020

#152: The Goose & the Gander — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Moses made haste and bowed his head toward the ground and prostrated himself [before God] (Exodus 34:8). What did Moses see? R. Chanina b. Gamla said: [Moses] saw [God’s attribute of] Slow to Anger. But the Rabbis say: [Moses] saw [God’s attribute] of Truth. It is taught by the one who said that [Moses] saw Slow to Anger, as it is taught [in a baraita]: When Moses ascended to heaven, he found the Holy Blessed One sitting and writing, “Slow to Anger.” [Moses] said to [God], “Master of the universe, is Slow to Anger [only] for the righteous?” [God] said to him, “Even for the wicked.” [Moses] said to [God], “Let the wicked be obliterated.” [God] said to him, “Now (i.e., in time) you will see that you need this.” When Israel sinned [in response to the report of the spies, at which time Moses implored God to forgive the people], [God] said to [Moses], “Did you not say to Me that Slow to Anger should be for the righteous [alone]?” [Moses] said to [God], “Master of the universe, and is this not what You said to me: ‘[Slow to Anger] is even for the wicked’?” This is [the meaning of] that which is written, Therefore, I pray You, let Adonai’s forbearance be great, as You have spoken, saying… (Numbers 14:17). (BT Sanhedrin 111a, b)

The human proclivity for vengeance and retribution needs no introduction. Most all of us are living proof that the tendency to approve punishment for those we don’t like far exceeds our  sense that justice demands equal treatment for our friends and allies. The passage above envisions Moses wrestling with this all-too-human emotional and moral dilemma. At the root of the discussion is a famous account in Exodus of Moses’ direct view of God on Mount Sinai: Adonai came down in a cloud; [God] stood with [Moses] there and proclaimed the name “Adonai.” Adonai passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “Adonai! Adonai! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet [God] does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:5-7) This passage is known as “The Thirteen Attributes” it enumerates. These verses emphasize that God’s forgiveness, which extend to “the thousandth generation” over God’s willingness to punish evil-doers, which extends only to “the third and fourth generations.”

Given that Torah asserts that God descended in a cloud and stood alongside Moses, the Rabbis ask: What, precisely, did Moses see in that moment that led him to hastily prostrate himself before God just as God finished proclaiming the Thirteen Attributes? R. Chanina b. Gamla says Moses saw the middah (attribute or character trait) of Erekh Apayim (Slow to Anger), God’s forbearance and reluctance to punish. R. Chanina’s colleagues disagree, claiming Moses bowed in homage to Truth. However, a baraita is brought in support of R. Chanina’s opinion; it claims that Moses paid prostrated before God in that particular moment precisely because he saw God writing the words “Slow to Anger” into the Torah that God would momentarily reveal to Moses. He asks God if this consideration would be given only to righteous people. God responds no: Slow to Anger is for all people, including the wicked. Moses objects, telling God that the wicked should be quickly destroyed. But God enigmatically replies: Don’t be too quick to wish for that, Moses because a time will come when you will request that I exercise just this attribute in favor of  people who exhibit behavior you now condemn; then you will be glad Slow to Anger applies to them, as well.

Sure enough, what God predicts transpires. As recounted in Numbers chapters 13-14, Moses dispatches twelve spies on a reconnaissance mission of the Land of Israel, ten return with a negative report that frightens and disheartens the people. As a result, Israel rebels against God’s command and threatens to pelt Moses and Aaron with stones. God expresses the desire to strike the people with pestilence and disown them (14:12) but Moses exhorts God to forgive them, evoking God’s exceptional forbearance (14:18). In his own enumeration of God’s divine attributes, closely echoing Exodus 34:5-7. Moses lists Slow to Anger first. Perhaps this fascinating detail inspired this aggadic narrative: Adonai! Slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children, upon the third and fourth generation (v. 18). Moses concludes, Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt (v. 19). The phrase, “as You have forgiven…ever since Egypt” evokes the notion of Slow to Anger. And, indeed, God pardons Israel (v. 20). God’s warning to Moses has come to fruition. If Slow to Anger is appropriate for the righteous, who are not in need of forgiveness because they have not sinned, do not the wicked need God’s forbearance and forgiveness all the more? Is not what’s good and due the righteous goose good and appropriate for the wicked gander, as well?

  1. Is the middah (attribute) of Erekh Apayim—being slow to anger and not rushing to judgment— an unearned concession to the wicked, or a fundamental element of justice? Why or why not? Are there implications for criminal and civic justice in our own times? What are the implications for our personal relationships?
  2. The principle of God’s forbearance toward both for righteous and wicked is encapsulated in a narrative about Moses’ inability to understand and foresee that he might value God’s forbearance at a future time when Israel is “wicked.” Can you identify real-world examples when you were unable to see the other side of an issue until it impacted your life personally?
  3. Do you consider yourself slow to anger? If not, how might you cultivate this attribute?

Friday, January 10, 2020

#151: The King & the Judge — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Why are the kings of Israel [not judged]? Because of an incident that occurred. The slave of King Yannai killed a person. Shimon b. Shetach said to the Sages, “Set your eyes on him and let us judge him.” They sent [a message] to [King Yannai]: Your slave killed a person. [Yannai] sent [his slave] to them. They sent [another message] to Yannai: You come here also, [because concerning], [the ox] and its owner (Exodus 21:29) Torah stated that the owner should come and stand [trial] with his ox. [Yannai] came and sat. Shimon b. Shetach said to him, “King Yannai, stand on your feet and [witnesses] will bear witness against you. It is not before us that you stand, but rather you stand before the One Who Spoke and the World Came Into Being, as it says, the two parties to the dispute shall appear before Adonai (Deuteronomy 19:17).” [Yannai] said to him, “I will not [comply] when you [alone] tell me, but rather only if your colleagues say so.” [Shimon b. Shetach] turned right. [The judges to his right] forced themselves to look down at the ground. He turned to the left. [The judges to his left] forced themselves to look to the ground. Shimon b. Shetach said to them [i.e., all the judges], “You are masters of thought. May the Master of Thought punish you.” Immediately, [the angel] Gabriel came and struck them to the ground and they died. At that moment, [the Rabbis] said: A king does not judge [others] and [others] do not judge him. He does not testify [against others] and [others] do not testify against him. (BT Sanhedrin 19a,b)

Torah expresses deep reservations about Israel’s desire to be ruled by a king out of concern for the potential, or perhaps likelihood, that a king would abuse his power. Deuteronomy 7:14–20 restricts a king’s wealth, military power, and ability to make personal alliances with other nations  through marriage. At the same time, Torah assigns to the Levites the exclusive right to interpret the law. The Rabbis considered themselves the rightful inheritors of levitical authority and, accordingly, run the courts.

Tractate Sanhedrin delineates the structure, organization, and procedures rabbinical courts must follow. Without  explanation, mishnah 2:2 specifies, “The king may neither judge nor be judged; may not give testimony nor may others testify against him…”  The Gemara explains this by means of a narrative concerning an occasion when Shimon b. Shetach, president of the Sanhedrin, attempted to summon to court the second Hasmonean ruler, King Yannai (AKA Alexander Jannaeus), in the late second century BCE. Although Yannai initially complies, things do not proceed smoothly. The action quickly focuses on the underlying conflict between Shimon b. Shetach’s authority and King Yannai’s power.

The Sanhedrin, the rabbinical court, is called upon to adjudicate a case of murder. Shimon b. Shetach, president of the Sanhedrin, summons the accused, a slave belonging to King Yannai, to court via a message to the king. Yannai initially complies. The sage then demands that the king, himself, appear alongside his slave, citing a law in Torah that holds the owner of an ox responsible for damage wrought by his animal. The analogy of the slave-king to an ox-owner relationship implies that just as the ox should be supervised and controlled at all times by the owner or the owner’s agent, the king should do likewise vis-a-vis his slave and bears responsibility for crimes committed by the slave. Given that the slave is a human, not an animal, this argument is dubious at best. Initially, Yannai appears compliant. As the action unfolds, however, we find ourselves amidst a pitched battle between Shimon b. Shetach’s authority and King Yannai’s power. Shimon b. Shetach demands that the king stand in court, a posture of deference and respect that is generally the inverse of the usual posture whereby a king sits on his throne and others stand before him. The sage specifically notes that the king must stand not before the sages who serve as justices, but before God, the ultimate power and authority of the universe. Yannai, whom we easily picture brimming with contempt, neither stands nor utters a word in response. Rather, he stares menacingly at the rabbi-justices arrayed to Shimon’s right and left. They all look down at the ground, signaling submission to the king’s superior power. The story does not end with either King Yannai’s conviction or exoneration, but rather with Shimon b. Shetach castigating his colleagues, whom he condemns as having failed in their duty as “masters of thought” on the model of the Divine “Master of Thought.” Heaven apparently concurs in this judgment and carries out the ultimate punishment: the justices who deferred to the king all die.

  1. Do you think that King Yannai initially appears in court to show deference to the Rabbis, or  intends all along to intimidate them with a show of steely confidence in his superior power in the very location where they exert their authority and thereby issue a warning?
  2. Did Shimon b. Shetach exercise his authority properly? If a king is beholden to the laws of the Torah no less than any other citizen, should the courts try him for violations of the law or summon him as a witness to a crime?  Does the conflict between King Yannai and Shimon b. Shetach center on law or the practical reality of the uneven distribution of power between the ancient Jewish “executive” and rabbinic judiciary? Do you find parallels today?
  3. The rabbi-justices meekly submit to Yannai’s power. Should we understand this as tacit agreement that Shimon b. Shetach is overreaching in his attempt to call the king as a witness or try him for murder (as the “owner of the ox”)? Or, are the sages thoroughly intimidated and terrified by the king? Might their fate at the hands of Heaven be considered middah k’neged middah (“measure for measure”): they looked down to the ground in acquiescence to human power, rather than up to heaven in obedience to the divine authority invested in the Sanhedrin? Can you envision another outcome for the situation described in the narrative?